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Lower Church and Saint Francis Tomb in Saint Francis Basilica
Assisi’s iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, or San Francesco, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000) is by far Umbria’s most recognized and visited monument, an important destination for travelers interested in both its art and architecture and its spiritual and religious significance.
Dedicated to the memory of Saint Francis of Assisi, this monumental complex including both the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi (mother church to the Franciscan Order, now known as the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor) and the Sacro Convento (Franciscan Friary, which also houses the archives and museum) was begun in 1228, immediately after the canonization of Saint Francis (1182-1226).
Perched on the far west end of the town of Assisi, the complex sits on a hilltop where the gallows for criminals sentenced to death once stood. After the land was donated as the site for the Basilica honoring Assisi’s most famous son, the hill previously known as the Colle d’Inferno (Hill of Hell) was rebaptised Colle di Paradiso (Hill of Heaven). The Basilica and convent cover the top and southern face of the hill; the northern face is home to the recently reclaimed Bosco di San Francesco.
The Basilica is said to have been designed by Brother Elias, one of Saint Francis’ first and most loyal followers, and is composed of two separate consecrated churches on two levels.
Basilica Inferiore or Lower Church
The Basilica Inferiore (Lower Church) was completed first--in 1230—and its simple cruciform floor plan, ribbed semi-circular cross vaults over the nave and barrel vaults over the transepts are typical of the Romanesque style. Later additions, including a Gothic entry portal added between 1280 and 1300, and a Renaissance porch completing the entry to the nave in 1487, diluted the original Romanesque style.
The low ceiling and semi-darkness of the lower church remind visitors that is is also home to Francis’ crypt, which has been open to visitors since the Saint’s body was rediscovered and entombed here in 1818. (It had been buried in a secret location under the floor of the Lower Church to prevent the Saint’s remains being collected and scattered as relics by the faithful).
The Basilica Inferiore is adorned with some of Italy’s finest 13th and 14th century frescoes, including in the right transept Giotto’s “Crucifixion” and Cimabue’s “Madonna and Child, with Angels and St. Francis” (1280). The latter is one of the most famous and accurate likenesses of the Saint.
From the Lower Church, visitors can also visit the chapter house, where a number of Saint Francis’ possessions (including his iconic tunic and some documents written in his own hand) are displayed, and the Basilica’s Museum..
Lower Church Visiting Information:
Hours: 6:00 to 18:45, during daylight savings. May have shorter hours during winter.
Tomb of Saint Francis: 6:00 to 20:00
Continue to Next Page: Upper Church and Interior PhotoContinue to 2 of 2 below.
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Upper Church of Saint Francis Basilica and Visiting Information
Basilica Superiore or Upper Church
The Basilica Superiore (Upper Church) is a stark contrast to the Lower Church, with its soaring Italian Gothic arches, glorious rose window and tall stained glass panels (considered the finest example of Medieval glass in Italy), and vibrant frescoes. Entry is through the Gothic portal in the majestic white stone facade at the base of a dramatically sloping expanse of lawn, and visitors are treated to an immediate and uninterrupted sweeping view of the length of the nave from entrance to apse..
This more recent church (work was finished in 1253) mimics the Lower Church only in its cruciform plan; the transverse ribs, each originating from a column formed of rib clusters, are pointed rather than semi-circular, giving the space a much more expansive feel. In additiona, unlike the Basilica Inferiore, the Upper Church’s long nave was not interrupted with subsequently added lateral and transept chapels, so it has retained the clean, sweeping lines of pure Italian Gothic..
Perhaps the most striking element of the Basilica Superiore is its famous fresco cycle illustrating the life of Saint Francis lining the lower walls of the nave. Originally attributed to Giotto, these 28 panels painted between 1296 and 1304 were almost certainly completed by Giotto’s students under his direction, but their excellence is undisputed. Beginning with the fourth bay on the right, with “Francis Honored by the Simple Man”, and continuing clock-wise, viewers follow the progression of the Saint’s life and faith. Perhaps the most recognized and moving of the panels is to the right of the entrance to the nave, where “Francis Preaches to the Birds.”
The Upper Church is also home to some excellent works by Giotto’s master, Cimabue, including the dramatic “Crucifixion” in the left transept, now oxidized with time and decay into a photographic negative of the original.
A devastating earthquake in September of 1997 caused the vault above the entry to the Upper Church to collapse, killing four people and destroying a number of frescoes, including Cimabue’s St. Matthew. The vault has since been restored, though the fresco was only recovered in pieces.
Upper Church Hours: 8:30 to 19:45, during daylight savings. May have shorter hours in winter. See Lower Church and Tomb hours on Page 1.
Check current opening hours and mass schedule on this web site.
Saint Francis in Italy
This article was contributed by Rebecca Winke, owner of Brigolante Guest Apartments near Assisi. For more about Assisi and Umbria by Rebecca, see her excellent app, Umbria Slow: Food, Culture, and Travel (read review).